British Prime Minister's Snapchat ban is an electioneering empty threat

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan January 12, 2015
Banning Snapchat - opportunistic electioneering or a genuine threat from British Prime Minister David Cameron? Either way, he doesn't know what he's talking about.

Not using Snapchat

Question of the day: has UK Prime Minister David Cameron ever sent a Snapchat message?

I haven’t actually asked 10 Downing Street this question, but I think we can reasonably take a stab in the dark and say that the answer to that one is no. While a number of members of his government have taken advantage of the power of social media to send pictures of their, well, their members to some of the electorate, I think we can safely rule the PM out from their number.

But according to the headlines across the media today, that’s not about to stop him trying to outlaw it if his Conservative party is still in power after the forthcoming General Election in May.

His plans were seemingly revealed in a keynote speech delivered yesterday in the wake of the horrific events in Paris last week.

In his speech, Cameron doesn’t explicitly mention Snapchat or other apps such as What’sApp or iMessage, but there can be little doubt of what he means when he said:

In our country do we want to allow a means of communication between people which even in extremis with a signed warrant from the Home Secretary that we cannot read?

My answer to that question is no we must not.

At present, if the police or the security services want to look at a citizen’s online data, permission needs to be given in writing from the Home Secretary, the government minister in charge of homeland security in the UK. All that would change it seems if Cameron’s Conservative Party is elected with a governing majority (which it currently does not have). The Prime Minister said:

The attacks in Paris once again demonstrated the need to have robust powers through our intelligence and security agencies to keep our people safe.

The powers that I believe we need, whether on communications data or on the content of communications, I am very comfortable that those are absolutely right for a modern, liberal democracy.

If I am Prime Minister, I will make sure we do not allow terrorists safe space to communicate with each other.

Not a clue

Cameron didn’t go into detail about what his intentions would be, most likely of course because he hasn’t a clue what he would or could do beyond making an electioneering statement of intent.

No doubt cyber-security experts will be able to explain to him that the chances of being able to outlaw the likes of Snapchat are negligible. What’s more likely is that legislation would be passed to force developers to open up encryption technology to the authorities, which would of course be ferociously resisted.

For example, let’s take into account the words of Apple CEO Tim Cook. (British MPs are very fond of Apple - or at least of snapping up Apple kit at the taxpayers expense -  so this is directly relevant to them!) Cook stated last year:

I want to be absolutely clear that we have never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will.

Let’s assume that Cook sticks to his guns, where does that leave a future Cameron administration? Does it try to ban iMessage and FaceTime in the UK?  Do we make entry to the UK by immigrants or tourists contingent on handing over their Apple tech to the authorities for ‘safe keeping’? And what about all that Apple kit that MPs bought on expenses - does that go back?

Not alone

But Cameron’s not alone in his call for action. Last week, Andrew Parker, head of security service MI5, cited communications technology as being on the frontline in the war on terror.

While the Paris shootings have provided the latest pretext for such calls, this is hardly the first time this has happened.

In the wake of 2011 riots in UK cities, fingers of blame were pointed in the direction of Blackberry Messenger for providing a secure and private channel by which agitators were able to monitor and orchestrate outbreaks of looting and violence.

Not interested in

While opposition politicians in the UK have expressed the need for caution, Cameron’s rhetoric goes down well with many in the Conservative heartland, such as Mayor of London Boris Johnson - one of the politicians most likely to succeed Cameron as leader of the party - who shamelessly declares:

I’m not interested in this civil liberties stuff. If they’re a threat, I want their emails and calls listened to.

It’s tempting in UK circles to dismiss ‘Bojo’ as an amusing ‘character’, but comments like that make him hugely dangerous.

But Cameron’s deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat party, will today break ranks with his partner and declare that the Prime Minister’s plans:

would mean a new, indiscriminate power for governments to record every man, woman and child’s web history, emails and social media interactions regardless of whether they are guilty or innocent.

He told the BBC this morning:

What it would do is say that you, every single person listening to this programme now, every website they visit over the last year, every social media interaction they have, will be stored by somebody.'

Do I think that scooping up vast amounts of information on millions of people, children, grandmothers, grandparents, elderly people who are doing nothing more than visiting garden centre websites. do I think that is a sensible use of our resources and our time?

Does it address the issue which [MI5] quite rightly identifies, which is as technology mutates, as this globalised industry becomes more and more global how do we make sure that we continue to have the reach into those dark spaces so that terrorists cannot hide from it.

Clegg’s Liberal Democrats last year blocked the introduction of so-called Snoopers Charter data access and retention legislation by the government. This had already been shot down by the European Court of Justice which wanted of privacy rights violations, but the UK government tried - and failed - to bounce it through as emergency legislation.

Despite being widely berated for betraying many of his political principles to share power with the Conservatives, Clegg has taken a more robust stance on this issue than the main leader of the opposition, Ed Milliband.

Rather than stating a clear policy, Milliband’s main contribution this week is to kick a future decision to a third party:

It's important for security services to keep up to date with technology, but it must be done in the right way with basic liberties protected. That’s why we said there needs to be an independent look at these issues, to make recommendations about what needs to be changed for the future.

But Clegg’s party seems set for an electoral drubbing in May which means that Milliband’s search for a point of view takes on a new urgency

Je Suis Charlie

Meanwhile on a wider stage, governments from around the world issued their own statement of intent in the wake of Sunday’s march in Paris. Signatories, including the US Attorney General Eric Holder and US Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, issued a statement declaring:

We are concerned at the increasingly frequent use of the Internet to fuel hatred and violence and signal our determination to ensure that the internet is not abused to this end, while safeguarding that it remains, in scrupulous observance of fundamental freedoms, a forum for free expression, in full respect of the law.

With this in mind, the partnership of the major Internet providers is essential to create the conditions of a swift reporting of material that aims to incite hatred and terror and the condition of its removing, where appropriate/possible.

My take

Shameless and opportunistic electioneering by David Cameron is the immediate reaction to the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday.

Long on ‘look how tough I am’, short on any form of detail of how he’ll make good on his threats.

Quite how he and other advocates of such legislation intend to make this work is unclear. Perhaps they’ll borrow from the experiences of other leaders in this field, such as Syria, Russia, Iran and other well-known champions of freedom and democracy?

In the wake of atrocities such as that seen in Paris last week, we might legitimately hope for a more rational and considered approach than naked political posturing. This from a man who last month asked:

What’s the Buzzfeed?

Once he's got that one sorted out, perhaps we can come back to Snapchat et al?

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